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The Libyan crisis through the lenses of the Somali civil war

A burnt technical – a looming civil war

by Muuse Yuusuf
Saturday, March 12, 2011

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As you read this article, Libya is being torn apart by what seems like a looming civil war. This huge country is disintegrating into fiefdoms where an entrenched dictator and rebels are fighting for superiority in a deeply tribal society.


Again I cannot stop comparing the Libyan crisis to the 1980s’ Somalia. Both the late General Siyad Barre and Colonel Gaddafi came to power in 1969 when military revolutions were sweeping across Africa and the Arab world. Both men created a regime based on cult personality using their different version of socialism: Siyad Barre’s “scientific socialism” and Colonel Gaddafi’s “green revolution”. The inner working of their political power base is similar; all were/are family-clan dominated regimes that used brutal force to destroy dissent or opposition to their rule. Both Libyan and Somali societies are tribal with similar socio-economic realities, though Libyans have more natural resource (petrol) than Somalis, and the regime has been using the resource to pay off dissidents or to buy tribal loyalties. As of today, eastern part of Libya has fallen to protesters, exactly as the northwest region of Somalia had fallen to rebel movements in 1989. The regime is being holed up in Tripoli exactly as the Somali regime was in Mogadishu, where the final showdown was played in 1990-91.  


The ruling family is fighting back. Colonel Gaddafi has made a televised speech, and rather than being diplomatic and offer concession and reconciliation to the demonstrators, the tone of his speech has conveyed a chilling massage of terror and violence. After describing demonstrators as "cowards and traitors, rats and mercenaries", the colonel has vowed to stay put and to die as martyr in his country. His speech sounded like a tribal leaders, calling his clansmen to defend him in a tribal society. The ruling family has warned of civil war in Libya similar to the protracted Somali conflict. The brutality of the regime has already materialised as loyal forces, including hired mercenaries, are bombarding cities and towns using jet-fighters and heavy weapons exactly as the Somali regime did to Hargeisa and Burao in 1989.


During the last days, weeks and months of his rule, the late President Siyad Barre would use different tactics to outmanoeuvre his opponents: one day he would appoint prime ministers and promise political reforms only to use force in the next day, indiscriminately shelling Mogadishu and other towns. At the time there was another brutal dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariame, whose rule was challenged by Ethiopian rebel movements. As guerrilla forces were encroaching Addis Ababa the Ethiopian dictator was persuaded to leave the country peacefully, and went into exile in Zambia, thanks to diplomatic efforts by the USA. Unfortunately, although the United Arab Emirates had offered him political asylum (1) the late President chose to fight to the bitter-end. He immediately retreated to his clans’ hinterlands where he organised a formidable fighting force. In several counter offensives against the USC and other forces in what was a tribal war, his forces reached 30 km outside Mogadishu and were in control of some regions his forces carried out what was described scorch earth policy, causing more destruction and death.


In hindsight, Mengistu’s wise decision to leave his country without fight saved Ethiopia from a total anarchy and outright civil war at least the capital city. Sadly, the late General Siyad Barre’s decision to fight on would contribute to more anarchy, chaos, mayhem and bloodshed, which would lead to mass starvation.  Indeed, the 1990s mass starvation of 300,00 people in Bay and Bakool and other  regions was caused because of, among other things, destruction of farmlands and properties by the late President’s forces and other warring factions [Cassanelli and Besteman (2) and Mukhtar (3)].


Once the dictatorship was removed, the clan-based and visionless armed rebels failed to rise above divisive and vindictive clan politics and hunger for power. The country plunged into anarchy and lawlessness. In addition to the “clan cleansing” against particular clans in Mogadishu, Ali Mahdi and General Aideed’s factional fighting reduced some of parts of Mogadishu to rubbles, killing thousands of Somalis.


The SNM used brutal force to persecute those clans who they saw as sympathisers of the fallen regime, and within a short time the SNM split into factions, unleashing a devastating clan war that killed many people. After briefly stopping, the civil war in the northwest continued until 1996 in which case the late Mohamed Ibrahim Egal’s regime bombarded the opposing clans with heavy weapons. The human cost of the civil war, the worst of its kind since 1988, was high. It claimed 4,000 lives in Burao alone, forcing 180,000 people to flee to Ethiopia [Bradbury, 2008 (4)].  Here again a local regime, supposedly elected by the people through their clan elders, waged war against its own people, bombarding towns and cities to dislodge what it perceived as rebels, exactly as General Siyad Barre’s regime had done. If the General Siyad Barre was accused of bombarding Hargeisa and Burao so was the late Egal. No one can deny history.


In sum, as of today, Libya could go either ways: entrenched dictatorship in which case Colonel Gaddafi and his regime would use extreme force to hang on to power as they have no where else to go, or even if they did leave, the country might descend into anarchy and tribal civil war because there is no credible, united and nationalistic opposition movement to save the country from a looming civil war in a tribal society like Libya. Indeed, Libya is currently divided into rebel-held east regions vs. west enclaves where the colonel is in power.


Libyans can learn a lot from the Somali experience.

Muuse Yuusuf

[email protected]



(1) Dool, Abdullahi (1998). Failed States, When Governance Goes Wrong, London: Horn Heritage

(2) Cassanelli, Lee and Besteman, C. (eds)  (1995), "Explaining the Somali Crisis," The War for Land in Southern Somalia.  Boulder, Col.: Westview Press.


(3) Mukhtar, Mohamed Haji, The Plight of Agro-pastoral Society of Somalia in Review of African Political Economy, vol.23, p.70


(4) Bradbury, Mark, Becoming Somaliland, 2008, p.115-18


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